Grassroots community sports groups, of the kind you’ll often see on Instagram, have the kind of authenticity and engagement that plenty of brands would like to tap into. Relevant collaborations can work for both sides: brands are able to increase their credibility, while smaller sporting communities increase their exposure and, with a bit of luck, create some cool stuff as well. We get the lowdown from both sides of the coin on how to go about figuring out these partnerships the right way.

The view from the brand 

Phillip Bircham is global marketing manager at international surf brand Quiksilver, a heritage business that has recently ramped up its collaborations with, and support of, micro surfing communities around the world.

What’s in it for a big brand when speaking to these small groups?

A. ‘Values – we need to look at small, new communities. There’s a big uprising with diversity, inclusion and LGBTQ+ culture in surf. For every big licensee collab, we need to do something that’s supporting the core of the community to make sure we balance our brand and don’t lose what Quiksilver was built from.’

What are you looking for?

A. ‘Doing something fresh and interesting, and working with good people. There are so many communities and groups bringing a fresh spin on it, coming from non-traditional surf backgrounds.’

How do you find them?

A. ‘There’s a bit of Instagram hunting and reading. But there’s still this recommendation network – everyone knows someone who’s doing something, there’s a lot of word of mouth. I tend to reach out directly and ask them what they think we should be doing, or what surf is missing. I think the best collabs come from a global marketing lead or an art director reaching out directly, without sign-off from the rest of the team. So it grows organically, rather than coming from a corporate standpoint. Any time I’ve spoken to smaller brands, they’re more appreciative that we’re reaching out, rather than copying or ignoring them.’

Do you go in with concrete ideas?

A. ‘It’s just an open chat about values, what they’re up to and what they think about the industry, so you can understand where they’re coming from and what they think of you. We might speak a couple of times more and then, if there’s a natural organic moment that comes up, we’ll think about a specialized project. Sometimes there isn’t anything and it’s just about keeping that connection going.’

How does it work in practice?

A. ‘For us, everything tends to begin with product. Quiksilver has iconic franchises or blocks of product, while a lot of these smaller communities are known for their graphic edge. So it’s about letting them completely take over and being a canvas for them to tell their values or ideas. 

There’s no point trying to force a brand’s agenda. We land on a theme together and then essentially they go away and present three different graphic groups. We then sit with our art director and choose which route we want to go down and which products we want to see those graphics on. Then we see what’s feasible with production. They effectively take the role of a freelancer.’

What are your main targets or deliverables?

A. ‘It’s a lot more fluid – it’s about brand health and is a lot less trackable. There is no sales target. Sometimes a couple of products might get cut because we can’t hit the minimum order. It’s a lot more about showing up as a brand, supporting and making the connections. We are doing some projects at the moment for which we have no expectations – they’re just a pure community presence point of view.’

What mistakes do you commonly see with collaborations?

A. ‘When there’s no natural connection or story between both collaborators. And that doesn’t mean that the story already exists; it might be something that you have to create. There is a lot of logo slapping without consideration of what it should mean or why – it’s just money chasing and authenticity grabbing.

‘It’s hard to compile a checklist of what’s right and wrong, because each actual collaboration is completely different every time. It shouldn’t be a formula. Each one should be unique to itself and should play to the strengths of the synergy between the brands.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 42, August/September 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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